Yale Bulletin and Calendar

June 9, 2006|Volume 34, Number 30|Five-Week Issue















The seniors gathered in Woolsey Hall for the Baccalaureate Address, during which President Richard C. Levin encouraged them to remain curious, open-minded and original, and to serve wider society.

Curiosity, Independence and Public Service

The following is the text of the Baccalaureate Address delivered by President Richard C. Levin on May 20 and 21 in Woolsey Hall.

Four years ago, in this very hall, I welcomed you to Yale. I began by telling you about Yale's tradition of pioneering new fields of study, its magnificent collections, its extraordinary faculty and their scholarly accomplishments. Then, as one example of Yale scholarship, I cited Edmund Morgan's just-completed biography of Benjamin Franklin. I identified several of Franklin's personal qualities and suggested that during your time here you might find them worthy of emulation. To remind you, these particular virtues were curiosity, independent thinking, and devotion to public service. I thought I would return to these themes today, in part to reflect on how you have practiced these virtues here at Yale, but more importantly to suggest how these traits of Franklin might serve you well in the years ahead, and enable you to contribute significantly to the well-being of our globally interdependent human society.

Returning to Franklin seems altogether fitting and proper this year, as we celebrate the 300th anniversary of his birth.

First among the virtues I cited was curiosity. Franklin wondered where the air that went up chimneys came from, and why oil droplets held their shape on solid surfaces but spread to a thin film on water. When crossing the Atlantic, he charted the location of the Gulf Stream and designed new hulls, riggings, propellers and pumps for sailing vessels. He advised Robert Fulton on adapting the steam engine for use in ships, and he figured out which materials conduct electricity and which don't. He rarely sat in meetings without doodling, and sometimes he designed elaborate math puzzles. He would have loved Sudoku!

As far as I can tell, you have not been lacking in curiosity. More than three-quarters of you decided on a major different from the one you announced as your intention during the summer of 2002. And I would venture to say that most of you have discovered new passions that will last a lifetime. Seventy of you have served as docents or assistants in the University Art Gallery or the Center for British Art, and hundreds more have taken classes in these two extraordinary museums. Three hundred of you worked in science, engineering, or medical laboratories on research projects with faculty guidance. And well over 400 of you went overseas for study or work internships. These are only a few of the ways you have exercised your curiosity; the years ahead will offer you many more opportunities.

Independent thinking was the second of Franklin's traits I encouraged you to emulate when we met four years ago. Franklin was not only curious; he very definitely had a mind of his own. As the outbreak of the Revolutionary War approached, while serving as an emissary in Europe, he believed that his mission was to convince Britain to allow its American colonies more liberty, and he opposed his fellow colonials who wished to separate from Britain. But Franklin had an open mind; when he returned home, he was persuaded by new evidence of British heavy-handedness to take up the cause of independence.

I expect that you would agree that we've encouraged you to think independently here at Yale. From the papers you've written, the exams you've taken, and the seminars you've attended, you know that the teachers you've most admired didn't encourage you to recite back their opinions. They wanted you to question everything and think for yourself. I imagine that the students most praised by the faculty were not those most adept at simply remembering what they read. Instead, they were the students with interesting and original ideas about what they read, or what they learned in the lab. I would imagine that you, too, have admired most those classmates whose ideas challenged you to think again.

Encouraging your curiosity and independence, along with originality and open-mindedness -- these were the goals that Yale set for you these past four years, and they are the major objectives of undergraduate education not only at Yale but at other leading American colleges and universities as well.

President Richard C. Levin and Yale College Dean Peter Salovey en route to the Baccalaureate ceremony.

Interestingly, the power of the American approach to higher education has only recently been recognized by other nations for what it is: a central reason for the prosperity of the United States and its leading position in global markets for the past 60 years.

The secret is simple. In the modern world, economic leadership does not depend on an abundance of natural resources or an abundance of cheap labor -- although it's true that oil-producing states experience waves of prosperity at times like the present one, and the combination of cheap but literate labor and the elimination of barriers to trade and investment can produce dramatic growth, as we've seen in China for the past quarter century. Nonetheless, sustained worldwide growth depends on advances in science and technology, and thus global economic leadership depends on a nation's capacity to innovate.

Other nations have begun to understand the links between higher education, innovation, and economic success. In China, Japan, and elsewhere, universities are abandoning their traditional pedagogy and seeking to encourage curiosity and independent thinking, in order to develop scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who have the creativity and capacity for innovation that is required to compete effectively in the knowledge-based industries that will drive the 21st century economy.

Let's turn now to the third of Benjamin Franklin's admirable traits -- his devotion to public service. He served as the first postmaster of the American colonies and subsequently devoted 25 years to service as an ambassador abroad, first for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, later for the confederated colonies, and ultimately for the new United States of America.

You have already shown an interest in service here at Yale. More than 400 of you participated as tutors or mentors in the New Haven public schools, and many more of you have involved yourselves in other community service activities of the widest variety. And contrary to the prevailing perception that your generation is disengaged from public issues, many of you worked as volunteers in the 2004 elections, and more than 100 of you served as interns last summer in Washington, D.C.

Some of you took up important causes here on campus -- urging the university to strengthen its commitment to protecting the environment, to refrain from investment in companies contributing to the Darfur genocide, and to increase the financial aid available to low-income families.

I want to encourage you to stay engaged with public issues, and to consider public service. Many important issues will fall to your generation for resolution. Can we sustain the health and well-being of an increasingly aging population? Can we live in peace and prosperity as emerging nations rise to share center stage with America? Can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avert the environmental catastrophe toward which we seem headed? To secure the future for yourselves and your children, your involvement with these issues is essential.

I remind you of what Alexander Hamilton had to say about this, in The Federalist, no. 1, page 1:

"It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies ... are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend ... on accident and force."

This is a powerful argument for public engagement. In Franklin's generation, and in Hamilton's, it called forth to public service citizens of the highest caliber, the most highly educated, the most morally principled. The questions facing us as global citizens today are no less weighty than those confronting America's founders. The world needs your commitment to public service. We at Yale expect it.

You may not have thought about your education this way, but the economist in me hastens to point out this fact: other people have made a big investment in you. I refer not only to your parents, whose sacrifice was considerable. I refer also to the generations of Yale alumni who -- even when your parents have paid full tuition, room and board -- have supported half the cost of your education through their gifts to Yale's endowment and through their annual donations to the alumni fund. The thousands of alumni who have made your education possible did not invest only for the pleasure of seeing you lead fulfilling and rewarding private lives. They also invested because they expected, and continue to expect, that, like Yale graduates who preceded you, you will make valuable contributions to the wider society -- by advancing science, scholarship, the arts, and the professions, and, above all, by taking responsibility for the future, by serving as leaders in your communities, in the nation, and around the world.

Tomorrow, I will confer upon you the degrees in Yale College as recommended by your dean and admit you to all their "rights and responsibilities." This idiosyncratic formulation is not an accident. In modern democratic societies we are accustomed to speaking about rights, but at the moment of your commencement we remind you that with rights come responsibilities. And take note that we speak of "rights and responsibilities," not "rights and privileges." Attending Yale College was a privilege; being a graduate of Yale College is a responsibility -- a responsibility to share the fruits of your education with a wider humanity, through leadership and service.

Women and men of the class of 2006: Never cease to exercise your curiosity. Seek out new experiences; approach them with an open mind, and form your own independent judgments. And, as the qualities of mind that you have developed here propel you past obstacles and setbacks to personal fulfillment, never forget that you have a broader responsibility. You are among those who are capable of ensuring that the fate of humanity is decided not by accident and force, but by reflection and choice. Rise to the challenge.


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Campus Notes

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